In the center of the world spun the Maelstrom, the enormous whirlpool created when the world was sundered ten thousand years previously, when Sargeras attempted to enter Azeroth bodily. None at the time knew he had returned.
The human kingdoms sprawled out across most of the Eastern Kingdoms. To the far north of the continent lay the forests of Quel'thalas, where the high elves ruled, having displaced the Amani trolls to their last redoubt, Zul'Aman. These trolls had at one time dominated most of the continent's north, but had relentlessly been pushed further and further back, first by the high elves and later by a union of elf and man that waged war against them. This war, called the Troll Wars, led not only to the near-total end of trollish rule, but it also created the first stable kingdom of man, Strom. By the time we're focused on, -1 BFW, mankind rules over several kingdoms. Lordaeron, Gilneas, Dalaran, Stromgarde, Alterac, Kul Tiras and Stormwind, known as the Seven, ruled everything between Quel'thalas to the north and the Dwarven kingdoms of the Hinterlands, Khaz Modan and the Twilight Highlands, while Stormwind stood as humanity's large bastion south of the dwarven mountains, pushing ever further south. At this time Lordaeron was largest and most powerful of these seven kingdoms, ruled by King Terenas Menethil. Dalaran was ruled by a council of mages called the Kirin Tor. Gilneas was ruled by the Greymane clan, passing from Archibald to Genn Greymane ruling at this time. Alterac was ruled by Aiden Perenolde, Strom by Thoras Trollbane, and Kul Tiras by Daelin Proudmoore.
In the mountains of Khaz Modan stood Ironforge, great city of the dwarves, and Gnomeregan, the mechanical city raised by the gnomish people. Both pursued friendly relations with each other and cautious ones with the rest of the outside world. To the east and north of the Wetlands stood the fallen city of Grim Batol, rendered uninhabitable during the War of the Three Hammers when the dark iron sorceress and queen Modgud led an army to despoil the city - despite her death, her foul magics tainted the place, and sent the Wildhammer dwarves scattering throughout the Hinterlands and Highlands, eventually raising a new seat of power at Aerie Peak.
South of Ironforge stood the nearly impassible Badlands, where dwarven rumor claimed their people had once resided in mighty Uldaman. To the west of that lay the Searing Gorge, a land crushed by fire and vulcanism, and further to the south were the former Redridge Mountains, now a hellish wasteland known as the Burning Steppes. During the aforementioned War of the Three Hammers, the dark iron dwarf Emperor Thaurissan dared to read a magic of elemental summoning so potent that it brought Ragnaros the Fireland to Azeroth, annihilating the mountains in a blast of fire and enslaving his people to the enraged elemental lord in the process. Thus, between Ironforge and Stormwind lay an almost impossible to traverse region of mountain wasteland.
Stormwind and its dependent regions (Westfall, Elwynn Forest, Redridge, Duskwood) lay south of this, at this time ruled by the wise King Llane Wrynn. To the south of Stormwind was a fetid swamp known as the Black Morass and the remnants of the trollish Gurubashi empire. Yet even here, humans were felling trees, draining marsh, and driving trolls from their path. The trolls were scattered throughout the Stranglethorn Vale, and the once-mighty Gurubashi were penned up in Zul'Gurub, their former seat of power, while the rebellious Atali trolls (priests of the blood god Hakkar) had been driven to the Temple of Atal'Hakkar by their own people. The temple was called the Sunken Temple because of the raw power of the Green Dragonflight, which had been unleashed to smash the temple unto the boggy marsh which would one day be called the Swamp of Sorrows - at this time, it was part of the massive Black Morass that dominated the southeastern portion of the land.
One tribe of trolls, the Darkspear, would leave this region only to find itself stranded on an island to the west, dominated by a naga sea witch - but this was far in its future. For now, the trolls of the Darkspear followed Sen'jin's rule, and sought to avoid larger, stronger tribes in the Stranglethorn jungles.
This was the Eastern Kingdoms in the time before the Dark Portal was opened. At the very heart of the continent's ley lines, in a windswept and treacherous rocky pass carved out of the land rose a tower unmoored in time and space. This tower, Karazhan, lay in the Deadwind Pass between the human territory of Duskwood (owing nominal fealty to Stormwind) and the troll city of Zul'Gurub, with a road winding through to the Black Morass. At this time, humans still settled in the shadow of the tower, with their homes dwarfed by the structure. And it was from this tower that Medivh, the last Guardian, would end this era forever - for it was Medivh who would construct Azeroth's side of the Dark Portal while under the control of Sargeras, the dark titan, who had entered his body upon his birth.
To the south lay Pandaria, although no one but a few knew this - sheltered by the mists created by the Sha of Pride, Pandaria lay undisturbed by those outside it, as it had for ten thousand years. To the north Northrend glittered like a frozen crown, a crescent that once capped the ancient continent that had lay where four now reside - at this time, the Empire of Azjol-Nerub slumbered undisturbed beneath the surface, while the troll nation of Zul'Drak dominated its terraced land, and the rest of the continet - the Storm Peaks, the Dragonblight, even Icecrown Glacier itself - all lay undisturbed by the troubles that would come with the arrival of the Lich King in future decades. Within Ulduar, the death god Yogg-Saron lay undisturbed, chained within the Titan complex, while his slave and servant Loken plotted to somehow free his once prisoner. The Sholozar Basin remained one of the Titans' petri dishes, undisturbed by outside forces.
Coldarra in the Borean Tundra lay deserted, as mad Malygos still mourned his dragonflight, nigh-totally destroyed by Neltharion the Earth Warder during his fall, when he assumed the name Deathwing. Ysera still lay sleeping at this time, watched over by her consort Eranikus, while Alexstrasza enjoyed the ministrations of many consorts, Tyranastrasz and Korialstrasz being just two of them. Nozdormu the bronze aspect, resided in the Caverns of Time to the south of Kalimdor.
Kalimdor was the furthest western remnant of the once expansive continent of the same name that had dominated known Azeroth during the time before the War of the Ancients. This mysterious land was sheltered in a protection that kept it unknown to the east for thousands of years - the high elves of Quel'thalas knew that they had journeyed to their current home from Kalimdor, but they had not bothered to attempt to return in the ten thousand years since their exile, content in their new home.
Many islands dotted the sea - Kezan, home of the goblins, Zandalar Isle, where the Zandalari trolls retained the last vestiges of the highest flowering of troll culture. On one submerged island, the lost night elf city of Suramar slept and within it sat the Tomb of Sargeras, raised by and then lowered by Aegwyn, mother to Medivh and the Guardian of Tirisfal before him. It was here that she lay the body of Sargeras, or an avatar of the Dark Titan. Suramar was as yet unlooted in this time.
At this time, Kalimdor's north from Winterspring to Stonetalon was under the control of the Kaldorei, the night elves, who despite their declining numbers dominated these lands, pushing as far south as Feralas and establishing a base in Silithus. As night immortal beings with a society divided strictly between dominant female warriors and priests and male druids who often slumbered for excessively long periods communing with the Emerald Dream under Ysera's guidance, reproduction was fitful at best - in ten thousand years, Fandral Staghelm had one son, and that son had one daughter before he himself died during the War of the Shifting Sands. Valstann Stagehelm's death and the end of the war were a thousand years before the time we're looking to now - in night elf terms, it was recent history. That war marked the end of southern expansion for the night elves - Feralas would be the end of their push. They refused to even explore the ruins of Eldre'thalas, left over from the War of the Ancients and the Sundering of Kalimdor which created the four continents we speak of in this time.
Some said that dark trolls lived in the roots of Mount Hyjal and in the forests of Ashenvale. At this time, they would have existed by avoiding the night elves as much as possible. They certainly posed no threat to them - some have argued that these dark trolls were somehow related to or ancestors of the night elves, but the elves themselves did not share this belief.
The lands not claimed by the night elves were fought over by others - the Firbolg lived within night elf territories and were allies to them, while the quillboar, centaur and tauren (shu'halo in their own tongue) were engaged in a constant struggle for control over the Barrens, Mulgore, and portions of the Stonetalon Mountains, as well as regions of Feralas and Thousand Needles. At the time, Thousand Needles was a zone that transitioned between Feralas' forested beauty, the Barrens' rocky highlands, and the desert aridity of Tanaris. A great salt flat dominated the easternmost edge of Thousand Needles, which led to the dry deserts of Tanaris, the lost and hidden reaches of Uldum, and the great jungle crater of Un'Goro bordering on Silithus. Throughout these zones, centaur and tauren fought while quillboar scrambled to hold what they could. The nomadic tauren could not hope to defeat the superior mobility of their centaur enemies, and it seemed clear that in a few generations, the tauren would be no more. Of the silithid hive that would come to threaten much of the continent, there was as yet no sign.
In the deserts of Tanaris, the last major troll outpost of Kalimdor, Zul'Ferrak, lay dreaming of conquest and expansion. Meanwhile, the Caverns of Time were home to the bronzes, whose aspect Nozdormu still possessed his vast power over time itself. Did Nozdormu know what was coming? If so, the aspect has never outright admitted to it.
This was Azeroth just before the opening of the Dark Portal - a land with many mighty human and elf kingdoms, where tauren faced a daily battle for extinction, where gnomes and dwarves kept to their mountain fastnesses and rarely spoke to outsiders, where the trolls of Azeroth slowly dwindled. This was the state of affairs before the opening of the Dark Portal, and the arrival of the orcs to forever change the destiny of two worlds.
Next week - sometimes we make hats out of foil.
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World of Warcraft in WoW Insider's Guide to Warcraft Lore